Pages of Death (1962)

PoD1 Watch Pages of Death here!

Hey you, down there! Time for one of those classic government-funded ‘duck and cover’ type propaganda short films! Designed to control the masses with fear, Pages of Death is a cautionary tale about the dangers of…. reading. That’s right kids, next time your parents tell you to go to your room and read, show them this film. You see, with the right material, reading can spark homicidal tendencies in even the most fragile and innocent young minds. But it’s not banned books such as Clockwork Orange or Catcher in the Rye that creates crazed killers; no siree. It’s something much more sinister….


Reading the newspaper is okay though.

Ah, observe the Nuclear Family as they lead their happy and carefree lives. There’s Mrs. Fleming (Vivi Janiss)  preparing dinner while her husband sits around with his newspaper. Their daughter, Karen, is…. wait. Where’s their daughter?! Mrs. Fleming grows more and more concerned as the hours pass, since Karen hasn’t returned home from school. Mr. Fleming, tough guy that he is, doesn’t seem to care too much. Eventually he agrees to go ask the neighbours if they’ve seen her since school let out. Mrs. Fleming picks up the phone and calls every member of the head-shake committee before finally going to the police. (9)For the last time, we’re not interested in a subscription to Reader’s Digest. Pages are DEATH!

With two detectives on the case, they retrace Karen’s steps to the variety store the local children frequent after school. They question the store’s manager, a grouchy old man who is defensive right away, as if he’s the guilty one. He tells the detectives that Karen was in the store earlier that day, and  his only other customer at that time was Paul, a teenage boy a few years older than her.

The jarring change of subject that follows is the first indication of what this film is really about. Before the detectives leave the store, the manager ridicules them for lobbying against the sale of pornographic novels and magazines at the last city council meeting. To these detectives, it seems, images of the human body are the most vile and corrupting force on the planet. By that logic they conclude the store manager couldn’t have been responsible for Karen’s disappearance, since he doesn’t read the mind-warping books, he simply sells them.

After interrogating Paul and his parents, another Nuclear Family, the detectives return to the Fleming home to wait around for updates. It’s not long before they get the call on the Fleming’s family phone. Police officers have found the girl, now a corpse in the town dump. A very tragic turn of events.

Well, it’s time to break the terrible news to the poor Fleming family. It’s never easy for a family to hear, and certainly no picnic for the detectives to share. This has to be handled delicately.

PoD4“She’s DEAD.”

The next step in the detectives’ investigation leads them to Karen’s school teacher for questioning. It’s really not clear why though; she can’t be a suspect since Karen was spotted by at least two witnesses at the variety store long after the school day had ended. I guess she’s a character witness….for the victim? She reads the detectives an essay that Karen wrote, and its over-the-top optimism is beyond ridiculous:

My Very Happy Life
By Karen Fleming

I was born in the Valley Hospital, and my mother said she was very happy.  My family is a very good family. I have a big sister and two little sisters. I have three little brothers. When I was three years old we had a new baby sister five days old. I was baptized on August fourth. My first communion was February twenty-second. My best day. My education means much to me. I would like to take advantage of all the education I can get someday. I hope to be a teacher.

I have many possessions. My home and my family. I have the gifts of God: Faith, hope, love, health and the ability to learn. I have all the things a girl would need, and, a collection of dolls. I like meatloaf, my favourite colour is green and I have the cutest kitten with no tail. I like sports and desserts. I am looking forward to a very good future.

First of all…Karen has three sisters and three brothers?! She’s in a family of seven children? Then where the hell were the other SIX kids when Mrs. Fleming was first at home, worried about Karen? At no point in this short do we ever see any other children in the Fleming house. I guess Karen was the favourite daughter, since she’s the only one they bother to report missing. Though the film’s narrator later claims these events are based on a true story, and that the essay above was actually written by the real-life victim, I have to question the paper’s suspiciously manipulative language. It’s over-the-top, beating you with sympathy for the girl who thought she would have a long, happy, life with her loving family, meatloaf, the colour green, and her tailless kitten. Which leads to a whole other point; they’ve established that she’s a perfect victim. What if she wasn’t baptised? What if her education didn’t mean anything to her? What if she didn’t feel her family was loving and wasn’t thankful towards them? The teacher is a character witness for the audience, establishing that we should care that a girl like Karen was murdered. There’s no other reason to include the scene since it does nothing to help the detectives track down the murderer – which, if I’m not mistaken, is what they should have been doing.

I will say this about the detectives, as far as police officers go, they are top notch drivers who follow the rules to the letter. Just watch the excruciating care they take backing out of the town dump. They even check under the car…. for something…. before getting in. (10)Not a single second of this 30 minute short’s runtime is wasted.

Having learned absolutely nothing helpful from the teacher, the detectives decide to backtrack by returning to Paul’s house. Remember, all they know about this kid is that he was in the same store Karen was on the day she disappeared. They already interrogated him once, and they cleared him. So why are they wasting their time back at this house? Why, because they’re awful detectives, of course! Paul’s mother leads them down into Paul’s basement den and they begin to look around. Searching through his stuff without probable cause, or a warrant, so anything they find won’t be admissible anyway. They notice tar and gravel on a pair of Paul’s shoes, just like the tar and gravel at the town dump (and of course, countless other roads in rural 1960s) where the body was found. The detectives admit, that’s not enough evidence to pin the murder on this kid. They will have to get the tar tested at the lab. If only there were something, anything, that could prove the kid’s guilt….

Yup. You guessed it.

When the detectives start going through the kid’s desk drawers, they find all the incriminating evidence they need. Stacks and stacks of pornographic novels and magazines. These somehow prove to them that Paul is a murderer -because he looks at and reads about naked women. Paul’s mother is shocked, and when Paul returns home a few moments later, he instantly admits his guilt. He raped and killed Karen, he says, but it’s not his fault! He’s a victim you see; the porn made him do it!

In the end the detectives return to the variety store, and chastise the store owner they spoke to earlier. As the man who sells porn, it’s his fault Paul had access to these magazines, and it’s his fault Karen died. Of course that doesn’t make an ounce of sense, since the detectives stated earlier that Paul likely ordered his magazines through the mail. So what is becoming of this world? I just can’t imagine how terrifying it would be if this short film were true. If the pornography of the 1960s turned people into crazed murderers and rapists, can you imagine what that would do to people today, in a world where pornography is a mere seconds away, at your fingertips, at any given moment? What kind of society would that be?

A post-apocalyptic red nightmare, probably.

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One Comment

  1. I just recently watched this short and was shocked to find out that Jack Webb wasn’t somehow behind the production, given the wooden performance of the detectives and the various lectures about the benefits of education and the evils of pornography. I’m probably bound for Hell in a handbasket for commenting that (after the number of her siblings was mentioned) I was surprised her parents even noticed she was missing. (Early in the film the mother mentions that Karen had told a friend that she was skipping some after-school activity to go home and ‘help with the baby’, Baby?! That woman was still popping out babies at age 50-something?!)

    I also commented to my husband about the detectives digging through the drawers without a warrant, but he pointed out that Paul’s mother had given her consent when they asked “Do you mind if we look around?” That’s one of those sneaky tactics the fuzz use to avoid the red tape involved in obtaining a warrant.

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